Cost of U.S. citizenship likely to rise

Times Staff Writer

U.S. immigration authorities Wednesday proposed hefty fee hikes for citizenship and permanent residency applications, pledging to use the revenue to help shorten processing time and improve service.

But the proposal, which would hike citizenship application fees from $330 to $595, drew immediate criticism that it would put citizenship out of reach for many poor immigrants. The plan also would increase overall fees for green cards, work permits and other benefits an average of 66%.

Some immigrant advocates say that the fee increases build a “new wall” that will make citizenship more difficult to attain.


Immigration officials this month plan to field-test a new citizenship exam they say will be more meaningful, but immigrant advocates fear could be more difficult.

Officials also are discussing a plan to require online application filing, which advocates say will hurt those without computer access.

“All of these policy changes really create another barrier for people who want to go through this process and realize their dreams,” said Mark Yoshida, an attorney with the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles.

But Emilio T. Gonzalez, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, dismissed such criticism Wednesday, saying previous fee hikes had not reduced the number of applicants. He said the Government Accountability Office in 2004 recommended a comprehensive fee study after concluding that current charges were insufficient to efficiently process the annual workload of 6 million immigration applications and petitions.

Gonzalez added that higher fees would help the agency reduce processing time by 20% -- from seven to five months for citizenship applications. Shorter processing time is critical to national security, he said, because it enables authorities to quickly identify any possible public safety threats.

“At the end of the day, it’s all about security,” he said at a Washington, D.C., news conference audiocast nationwide. “The new fee structure gives us a better agency. The new citizenship test gives us a better citizen. These are improvements. We don’t consider these handicaps.”


The proposed fee increases can be imposed without legislative action and are expected to take effect in June, after officials wade through feedback received during a 60-day public comment period, which begins today.

Gonzalez said his agency faced a $1-billion shortfall for the next two fiscal years and was legally required to raise its own revenue to balance its books. In 2002, Congress gave it a five-year special appropriation of $460 million to eliminate a backlog that peaked at 3.8 million cases and to meet a presidential mandate to process applications within six months.

The backlog has been largely eliminated and funding has expired, Gonzalez said, adding that he had no intention of asking Congress for more money.

Immigrant advocates, however, are urging the immigration chief to reconsider his stand, and have already begun to approach Congress for help.

The fee hikes would particularly hit Mexicans and Central Americans, three-fourths of whom earn less than $25,000 a year, according to William A. Ramos of the Los Angeles-based National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund. Latinos make up half of the 8 million legal permanent residents in the United States who could be eligible to apply for citizenship, he said.

“While we believe folks should pay a reasonable fee, it shouldn’t be to the point where it’s insurmountable,” said Ramos, who directs the organization’s Washington office.


Ramos said his organization had met with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and others about a possible appropriation to cover expenses that were not directly related to applicants, such as litigation and capital improvements.

Angela Sanbrano of the Central American Resource Center in Los Angeles said that many of her immigrant clients struggled to pay the current fee and could ill-afford the increases.

“People will now have to make a decision as to whether to pay rent, buy food or become a citizen,” she said. “Exercising your democratic right should not face these obstacles.”

The largest proposed fee hikes would be for the relatively small number of immigrant entrepreneurs seeking investor green cards, whose cost would increase from $475 to $2,850. Fees for the most widely sought immigration benefit -- work permits -- would rise from $180 to $340, and those for family visas would increase from $190 to $355.

Fees for most green card applications would rise from $325 to $905, but applicants would no longer have to pay added costs for work permits, travel authorization and other benefits. Those costs can add hundreds of dollars.

In addition, the fingerprinting fee would increase by $10 to $80.

The citizenship agency is proposing to eliminate fees for certain applicants, including battered women and human-trafficking victims.


The agency also is proposing to eliminate fee waivers for certain applicants who are required to be financially self-sufficient. Those include applicants for legal permanent residency and family visas.